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The BBC's Subir Bhaumik in Calcutta
"The Purulia arms drop created a sensation in India"
 real 28k

Saturday, 22 July, 2000, 21:50 GMT 22:50 UK
India pardons arms drop crew
Latvian crew
Two of the five man Latvian crew: They will now return to Russia
India has pardoned the five ethnic Russian Latvian airmen it released earlier from a jail in the north-east Indian city of Calcutta and handed over to the Russian authorities.

An Indian court sentenced them to life imprisonment in February for dropping a huge consignment of weapons over some villages in the state of Bengal in December 1995.

It has never been entirely clear who the weapons were intended for, although the Indian police have said they believe they were being sent to a rebel group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warmly welcomed the move and said it would contribute to the future development of the relationship between the two countries.

The five men, who were allegedly held in inhumane conditions, are expected to be returned to Moscow on Monday.

The Indian Government had been under considerable Russian pressure to release them, in line with a bilateral agreement on the transfer of prisoners.

Pressure from Putin

Mr Putin intervened on their behalf last month during a visit to Moscow by Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, the Russian Itar-Tass news agency said.

A British arms dealer, Peter Bleach, was also sentenced to life imprisonment for the drop.

There were no reports about Mr Bleach's current circumstances.

Peter Bleach
Peter Bleach says he told British intelligence about the arms deal
The men were arrested when Indian air force jets forced down their Latvian Antonov An-26 transport plane.

A diplomat at the Russian consulate in Calcutta, Alexander Kommissarov, told the French news agency AFP that the men would be flown to New Delhi later on Saturday, and then on to Russia.

He said one of the men was suffering from tuberculosis, and the appeal for their release had been based partly on health grounds.

New probe

In April, the Indian federal police ordered a fresh investigation into the arms drop case.

They said they believed the weapons were being sent to rebels in north-east India, with the possible support of the Bangladesh Government led by Begum Khaleda Zia.

plane
An Antonov cargo plane was used for the drop
The inquiry focused on the possible involvement of Bangladesh in the arms drop, as India believed its government was sympathetic to the rebels.

Initially, India's Central Bureau of Investigation had said the weapons were destined for a shadowy Hindu cult called Ananda Marg (Happy Path), but they failed to prove the allegation in court.

After the arms drop, the plane flew on to Thailand, but Indian jets forced it to land at Bombay airport four days later when it re-entered Indian air space.

The man believed to have masterminded the arms drop, Danish national Niels Christian Nielsen, mysteriously vanished from the airport.

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See also:

24 Apr 00 | South Asia
India arms case reopened
02 Feb 00 | South Asia
Briton gets life in India arms case
17 Jan 00 | South Asia
India arms trial verdict postponed
15 Feb 99 | South Asia
Arrests sought in Indian arms case
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